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A Really BIG Bird

By Margo D. Beller

Whether you are walking in a forest or park or sitting in your suburban backyard, there is nothing more distinctive than the sound of a pileated woodpecker whacking a hole in a tree, seeking the carpenter ants within.

Scherman Hoffman program director Stephanie Punnett heard that very loud sound on one of the trails and found this handsome fellow. You can tell it’s a male because he has a red “moustache” the female lacks. Otherwise, both look exactly alike, striking in their black and white and red.

Pileated Woodpecker male SH 3-6-13.JPG (Stephanie Punnett) Everything about the pileated is BIG. It is about the size of a crow, so when it flies over you in the woods it gets your attention. It has a large crest and a large bill that it uses to make large, rectangular holes in trees like the ones pictured. Sometimes the sound of one chopping into a tree reminds me of a woodsman with an ax.

Watch Jim O’Malley’s video of the Scherman Hoffman pileated woodpecker here.

Even its laugh is big. It carries far in the forest and in the backyard. In fact, most times it is the laugh that alerts me to the bird because it’s otherwise rather shy. I am sure the creator of the old “Woody Woodpecker” cartoon character had the pileated’s crest and laugh in mind.

I was once walking in my town to the morning train to work when I discovered a pileated, at eye level, whacking away at a tree. I was able to walk within five feet, so close I could see it was a female. She ignored me. There must’ve been a lot of ants in that tree. “That’ll be down in a year,” I thought. In fact, it took two.

A tree full of holes is a goner. The very fact the woodpecker is on it shows the tree is infested with carpenter ants, and that weakened tree will die.

But these holes also keep others, including smaller birds and even bats, alive because they create shelters. So even a dead tree has its uses.

The pileated Stephanie photographed on March 6 had been working on a sassafras tree (that can be seen from the Scherman Hoffman driveway) for the previous four days. At least one pileated, possibly this same one, has long hung around the education center. It may have been one of a pair I saw in the same area where this bird was photographed a few months ago.

And then there’s the name itself. I and several other birders I know pronounce it PILL-ee-ated. Others, including the narrators of several bird call CDs available for sale at the Scherman bookstore, pronounce it PILE-ee-ated. Either way, the word “pileated” means having a crest covering the pileum, which is the top of the head of a bird from the bill to the nape.

The pileated is the largest woodpecker we have in the U.S., unless you believe the ivory-billed woodpecker is still around. Back in 2004 it was believed one was found in an Arkansas swamp decades after it was presumed extinct. The effort to locate this woodpecker was the subject of the 2005 The Grail Bird: The Rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker and other books. Birders were excited about this. Many wanted to head down and find it. Even David Allen Sibley created an addendum on the ivory-billed you could download and add to his bird guidebook.

According to “The Grail Bird,” which I read, the kayaker who got a glimpse was asked if he really saw a “Lord God” bird. Wasn’t it more likely to be the more common pileated? He claimed it was not a pileated. If you look at John J. Audubon’s portrait of the ivory-billed and compare it to the photograph above, you can see the difference between the two woodpeckers.

However, Audubon, writing on the pileated in his journal, said its flight is “powerful, and, on occasion, greatly protracted, resembling in all respects that of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.”

Audubon has three ivory-billeds in his portrait. To get the birds he had to shoot them – with a gun. No digital cameras back then. We don’t know how many ivory-billeds were killed before he got the portrait he wanted but we do know from his journal that Audubon regretted killing any more birds than absolutely necessary. Unfortunately, others didn’t think the same way and the ivory-billed is likely extinct.

Not so the pileated, of which Audubon used four birds in his portrait. In his journal he wrote:

It would be difficult for me to say in what part of our extensive country I have not met with this hardy inhabitant of the forest. Even now, when several species of our birds are becoming rare, destroyed as they are, either to gratify the palate of the epicure, or to adorn the cabinet of the naturalist, the Pileated Woodpecker is every where to be found in the wild woods, although scarce and shy in the peopled districts.

Luckily for us in “the peopled districts” of New Jersey, these woodpeckers are still “every where to be found” today in places like Scherman Hoffman.

It is up to all of us who love birds and open spaces to keep it that way.

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